Arts & Theater

Shakespeare in Davis takes a step forward

In “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” are, from left, Susanna Risser as Edwin Drood, Martine Fleurisma as Princess Puffer and Matt K. Miller as Chairman.
In “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” are, from left, Susanna Risser as Edwin Drood, Martine Fleurisma as Princess Puffer and Matt K. Miller as Chairman. Davis Shakespeare Ensemble

Somewhere on the long and winding road of what people believe Sacramento needs is the idea of a professional summer Shakespeare festival. Rob Salas and Gia Battista, co-artistic directors of the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble, believe they have created that entity.

This weekend their company opens its sixth season of summer Shakespeare presentations in Davis and its second season at Veterans Memorial Theatre. Salas is directing “Twelfth Night” and Battista a musical, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” The shows will be in repertory with a company that includes two Equity actors under guest contracts – the familiar Sacramento-based Matt K. Miller plus Matt Edwards, a Davis-based actor with Broadway, Off Broadway and significant regional experience.

“Having Equity actors involved sets a a tone, it raises the bar,” Salas said. “It elevates the whole cast and the whole experience.”

Salas, who has been an assistant director at Berkeley Rep (the current “One Man, Two Guvnors”) and also at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has been mentored by director David Ivers, whom he met at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

“Most of my experience, which informed what we did, was based on my experience in Utah,” Salas said. “That was extremely informative because Cedar City, Utah, is a very small town. Three hours from Vegas, four hours from Salt Lake and not much in between.”

He absorbed how that festival runs rehearsals and schedules the repertory, and what to look for in the artists hired.

“We’re essentially trying to be that (kind of company) to the artists in this region – providing a summer gig, an opportunity,” Salas said.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he also worked with Ivers, is an entirely different, much larger-scale model, but was still educational for Salas.

“You can see how they’re able to execute a certain amount of quality in a short amount of time while doing multiple things,” he said.

Being active on several fronts at once has been the primary challenge for Salas and Battista as they grow their company.

“We worked at other places professionally,” Battista said, “but in terms of starting our own company, becoming a nonprofit and learning the in-and-out of that has become a huge learning experience.”

The duo put the company together in 2010 for a one-off production of “Romeo and Juliet” at the UC Davis Arboretum “for fun, really,” Salas said.

“We felt there was a void in the community when we started,” he said.

“We felt there was populace that would respond to a professional theater company,” he said. “There’s community theater, and there’s theater in Sacramento, but people in Davis are very pro-Davis, so we felt like we could step in and fill this hole.”

They started out using all UC Davis student actors; this season they have none. Half their company are Davis-based artists, and the rest have been imported from New York, Los Angeles and Utah for the summer season. Many of the actors also work in the popular Camp Shakespeare day theater camp for youths and teenagers.

“Rather actively seeking donors and sponsors and putting all our energy there, we’re trying to let the work speak for itself,” Salas said. “Then when people see the show, they’re naturally responsive to it.”

They company members are committed to finding and creating their own niche in the regional theater landscape.

“It’s important to us is that we’re as inclusive of the whole region as possible. We’re trying to choose musicals that are little bit off the beaten path. We’re trying to be a real addition to the community offering a professional atmosphere and play selection that isn’t always done here.”

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

Davis Shakespeare Festival

  • What: The Davis Shakespeare Ensemble in repertory with “Twelfth Night” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”
  • When: June 25 through Aug. 2 (show schedule varies)
  • Where: Veterans Memorial Theatre, 203 E. 14th St., Davis
  • Cost: $15-$25
  • Information: (530) 802-0998, www.shakespearedavis.org
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